When a home invasion is a cartel operation, it can be as elaborately staged and planned as a military raid. Tactical entry crews are given military training, possess military-grade weapons, and use SWAT-like small unit tactics. They are often skilled at counter-surveillance and can pose as police units. They have even been known to wear jackets with "POLICE" on the back, drive vehicles painted in black-and-white color schemes, and yell "Police, open up!" or a variant of that phrase, hoping to scare their victims into submissive compliance.
The tactical cartel crews are very dangerous for both civilians and law enforcement, but a bigger worry is the unprofessional crew that's just looking to make a quick drug rip.
Drug rip home invasions usually occur late at night or at dawn with residents inside the house, and the invaders expect armed resistance. Invaders looking to heist drugs or cash travel in packs to appear overwhelming to subjects they expect will resist.
In one Tucson case, rival crews exchanged a barrage of gunfire in a hallway with a resident who unloaded his AK-47 from an ensconced position inside his bedroom. High-powered rounds ricocheted through the interior door and sheetrock. When police arrived, the house was empty.
In another case, officers surrounded a house occupied by two recently furloughed Marines with AK-47s, a modified-stock 12-gauge shotgun, and semi-auto pistols with high-capacity double-stack magazines. One Marine had reportedly double-crossed the other by bringing in a third crew to heist the specially grown "hydro weed."
The unprofessional drug rip is the most common home invasion robbery nationwide, but near the border cartel operations keep law enforcement on edge.
Because of recent success by the Mexican government in disrupting cartel operations, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration say they're seeing a tightening of the cocaine market.
Cartels are less willing to extend credit to transporters and payment deadlines are often moved up, putting added pressure on transporters. "There is a shorter window on payment," says Rodney Benson, the DEA's special agent in charge of the Atlanta field division. "So when somebody doesn't pay on time, we see drug-related kidnappings here."
Benson heads a multi-agency task force that includes 10 local deputies and officers who have been deputized by the DEA to enforce the Controlled Substances Act (Title 21 in the Code of Federal Regulations). The agents use the same workspace to operate enforcement missions in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
"I look at violence and drug trafficking going hand in hand," Benson says.
In July 2008, Gulf cartel associates lured Oscar Reynoso, 31, to the Atlanta area from Rhode Island under the ruse of completing a vehicle purchase. Reynoso had allegedly lost a $300,000 load to law enforcement. And the cartel wanted its money.
Reynoso was taken to a house in a middle-class neighborhood in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. When he entered the garage supposedly to inspect the vehicle, he was jumped by eight people, beaten, and blindfolded. He was then dragged into the house's basement and chained to a mattress. With duct tape covering his eyes, Reynoso was forced to drink his own urine. He was rescued by officers of the Gwinnett County Police Department and Fayette County Sheriff's Department who raided the home and arrested three Mexican nationals.